There's a grandma in Topeka who fires up Facebook every day to see new photos and stories about her grandkids in Wichita. There's a national group of mothers of Autistic children using Twitter as their platform to point out gluten-free recipes that are aiding their sons' and daughters' health. There's an organic farmer in Berkeley, California whose website is letting all his local customer know what's in season right now at his farm stand and a Native American Health Clinic in New Mexico that has just claimed their Place Page to increase the visibility of their vital local medical services. What do all of these human efforts have in common? People and heart. But, does Google, the tin man of the Internet, with its algo-centric, data-centric mindset really fit into the Local/Social picture? You tell me.
If I Only Had A Heart...
I just read Liana Li Evans' excellent piece, Watching Google Attempt Social is Painful: A Look at +1 and Other Failures, prompted by the supposed 'Facebook-killer', +1. You can find a description of Google's new social app in about a million other places; as a Local SEO, I want to specifically focus on why Liana Evans' article hit home with me. Li say's:
Members of Facebook derive a value from it by being real, being themselves and connecting with their friends. The value of shared experiences is very addicting...With Google's plus one - there's no affirmation among your friends.
Why does this resonate with me? Because I'm seeing Google attempt to reduce Social to a numbers game, just as they have done with such disastrous results with Local Search. I think that Google may have a very basic, intrinsic problem in attempting to enter the Social Media sphere. To wit, they are wedded to the concept of algorithms ruling all. They are program-oriented instead of people-oriented.
Facebook, Twitter, YouTube - all of these successful entities were launched with the focus on people. Google's most successful products are data (search) and money (Adwords)-oriented (remember, they didn't create YouTube; they purchased it).
In Local, Google's lack of a human-centric mindset has not just been painful to watch - it has been staggering to the point of bringing up questions of legal business practices. From misrepresentation of emergency service and local business information, to a devastating failure to provide customer support for the companies whose data Google co-opted without so much as a by your leave, Google's highly visible Local applications evince utter ineptitude in relating appropriately to the society at large and the common man.
Local, like Social, is all about people + their businesses - approaching this as a mere numbers game started Google off on the wrong foot on day one and they've continued to tread the wrong road on this, transfixed as they are by their faith in the algo.
From my day-to-day work in Local, I know it takes heart to work in this arena. With heart, you listen to the retired executive who put in all of those years in the office always dreaming of the day he would retire and start his own little woodworking shop. With heart, you listen to the mother who is participating in a neighborhood homeschooling program so that she can stay at home with her own kids and be their #1 teacher. With heart, you listen to the hopeful goals of the guide dog trainer, guitar instructor, at-home nurse and family therapist to present themselves professionally online so that they can reach out to their neighbors with the services and skills they have worked so long to be able to offer.
If you work in Local, I bet at least a little of your heart gets wound up into the interesting stories each new client brings into your consciousness and you truly feel for them when a widespread bug or vague guideline in Google Places is all that is standing between these dedicated, skilled people and their online visibility. I have yet to speak with a local business owner who doesn't believe that Google should back up their Local products with customer support, and though, in truth, I often earn money exactly because of Google's lack, I always feel slightly apologetic explaining to incoming clients that Google is algo-centric instead of people-centric, so they will need to come to me instead of Google about Google's products. It's kind of an odd scenario, wouldn't you agree?
SEO, in general, evolved out of the needs of people to understand how to fit their presentation of themselves and their businesses into Google's model of relevance. The same applies to Local, with the major difference that getting bad data when you're searching for the name of Will Rogers' horse is unlikely to have the same real-world consequences as being given the wrong phone number for the local ER.
Does Google Really Want This?
Google has done an exceptional job of delivering the Will Rogers' horse-type data for years now. At general search, I believe they remain unsurpassed in data quality and clean, usable presentation. But as I have watched them wade full-tilt into Local and am watching their various baby steps in Social, I find myself asking, "Do they really want to do this?"
My business is a two-man shop. I had to learn long ago that we can't be everything to everybody. By sticking with what we are really good at, we are reasonably sure of delivering a very high-quality end product for our clientele. I get the sense that Google is feeling unnecessary internal or external pressure to be all things to all people. They need to be search, advertising, local, cartographer, social, library of books, news, image directory, personal shopper and video warehouse. The list goes on and it strikes me as an awful lot to shoot for.
I love and respect the fact that Google aims high, often beyond their own realistic capabilities. I am a fan of the creative spark, the muse and the music that makes the whole world sing. The tin man, if you'll recall, could do a great dance and so can Google, but this central Wizard of Oz character knew he needed a heart (or at least the semblance of one) in order to be all he could be.
Go back to square one on this, Google. At least in Local, and maybe in Social, too. The music that makes the world sing is sung by human beings, not bots, and you have got to start relating to people if you are really committed to being a major player in the Local/Social drama. You've got to engage - and if you're not truly comfortable doing so, no one is going to fault you for stepping back and sticking with the numbers and analytics. You're excellent when you do what you're best at. But don't get into this unless you're ready to do your best.
Miriam Ellis is the co-owner of Solas Web Design and CopyLocal, providing SEO-based website design, Local SEO and professional copywriting for small-to-medium North American businesses. She is the Local SEO Associate in the Q&A Forum at SEOmoz, a moderator at Cre8asite Forums and an annual participant in David Mihm's Local Search Ranking Factors report. When she and her husband are not working on the web, they're farming organically and working on increased sustainability or roaming about in nature having the time of their lives.
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